This year at General Assembly the Rev. Kenneth Phifer of Ann Arbor was asked to speak in behalf of all UU clergy who were celebrating 25 years of ministry. Ken closed his remarks with a personal recollection which speaks so eloquently for all of us that I'd like to share it with you today:
"One last reflection on these 25 years is drawn from my own experience but is not out of keeping with what I have read in my classmates' reports. I refer to the astonishing power of love.
"I simply did not know whereof I spoke back then when I talked then of love as the most powerful force in life. Twenty-five years of ministry have given me the privilege of seeing human beings up close in situations of desperation, of agony, of acute conflict. I have learned never, never to underestimate what love can do.
"I am not talking about miracles. Love cannot prevent death, retrieve a lost job, bring back our youth. But love can guide us in learning to live with these and other bad things in ways that keep life worth living. Love can help us to see the joy in small things.
"I have seen the old and the young, the sick and the healthy, the well-off and the not so well-off, people of every age and description, live in love. So have you, or you will soon.
"I have seen courage in the face of defeat, hope when there seemed no chance that the sun would ever shine again, cheeriness despite immense pain, laughter in the face of overwhelming burdens, joy when sorrow was like an enveloping atmosphere. So have you, or you will soon.
"When I am at my most discouraged, ready to throw off the cares of ministry, it is love that calls me back and makes me glad to be a Unitarian Universalist minister."
A lot of us, like Ken, entered ministry certain that love would be our primary focus. We were awash with the feeling that our relationships with our congregations would be one long love-fest, happily ever after.
The calling of a parish minister is often referred to as a marriage, with the honeymoon period lasting a year or two. There's no way you can prepare a young minister for the reality that will ultimately set in. Reality about the congregation; reality about the minister. In some cases the love - the marriage - is sorely tested. I know one seasoned minister who says she prefers a short honeymoon: let the other shoe drop, and then get on with working on the real relationship. Like Ken, despite discouragement, time after time we are called back to our ministry of love. Love is a shared ministry, one which doesn't require formal ordination.
In the last few weeks I've had calls from several friends in our Nashville congregation. First of all they wanted to make sure we'd survived the no-show hurricane. But most of all they wanted to give me a progress report on a dear friend - a childless widow about my age - who had suffered a severe stroke. In the first few critical weeks people had flocked to sign up for round-the-clock bedside vigils in two hour shifts. Hilda never had a moment when she was not surrounded by love. They followed her to the rehab center, and will be there for her when she finally returns home this weekend. I know without any doubt that love will be a powerful force in her recovery.
We tend to think that it takes family and friends - that professional caregivers have been conditioned to keep some distance between themselves and patients. Yet my experiences in hospital chaplaincy exploded that myth. One night I was making rounds according to a list supplied by the admissions office. I checked several charts at the nursing station and determined that my priority should be an elderly woman with no family. As I entered the room I realized that her nurse was getting her ready for the night. I stood in the doorway and watched the preparations. The nurse made sure that her pillows were comfortably arranged, that the call bell was handy, and that the blanket was tucked securely around her frail shoulders. Then she stroked her patient's hair and very tenderly kissed her goodnight. Anything I might have done would have been superfluous.
Another time I was paged by the ICU charge nurse. She'd noted that one of the patients was 87 years old that day. Again, no relatives were listed. So she called down to dietary and ordered cupcakes with candles. I found a rather funereal basket of flowers in the chapel and rearranged them in a vase. Then we gathered all the staff in the unit and sang "happy birthday" as she blew out her candle. Love makes a difference.
Love is - or should be - the basis of our Judeo-Christian religious tradition. Jesus, reaching back into his Jewish heritage, said that love of God, neighbor and self were the great commandments. Paul proclaimed that love was the greatest virtue and, in his letter to the Galatians, commanded Christians only to love self and neighbor - it was a given for him that to do so implied a love of God. Our spiritual forbears recognized God as the source of all love. It was commented by observers of these early communities: "See how these Christians love each other."
For me the great tragedy is that, over time, we have lost this emphasis. Lost it, in favor of doctrine and creeds which have driven religious communities to persecute those whose beliefs differ. Power and religious triumphalism have become, more often, what religion is all about. The early Universalists, who gave us the precept that a loving God saves all souls, were reviled in many New England communities - driven from pulpits by Calvinists throwing stones and other objects. Sad to say, even the word "love" has disappeared from our UU statements of purpose - our Principles. Though I think love is implied when we are asked to respect the inherent worth and dignity of all people.
Perhaps some feel that the term "love" in English has lost its significance. We love pizza and convertibles and the Washington Redskins and a host of rock stars. I heard one UU minister, on Valentine's Day, rail against the sentimentality of Hallmark cards. The Greeks had three distinct words for love: eros, philia and agape. Most traditional theologians dismiss eros - carnal love. Often self-serving, eros is equated with our lower, sinful natures. Martin Buber found eros objectifying - an I-It relationship, rather than the mutuality of philia - an I-Thou relationship. Or brotherly love, as we've often heard it called. Agape - selfless, unconditional love - is felt by the theologians to be possible only by God. Humans don't have the capacity for true altruism and agape.
So it was a breath of fresh theological air a few years back when Matthew Fox, a Dominican priest, reclaimed eros in his book "Original Blessing." He cited the older account of creation - not the one which gives us the Adam and Eve story, but the one which says that God surveyed creation and found it good. Thus, Fox contends, nothing in creation is inherently bad or sinful. Physical love between two persons can be as rich and rewarding as any other aspect of love. Within each relationship there can be all types of love, deeply interwoven. And certainly, many of us are capable of practicing agape, or unconditional love, particularly with our children.
Phyllis Hiller, a long-time Unitarian who develops materials for young children, gave us a song used in many of our congregations: "Love Is a Circle." It's less poetic, but I'd say love is more like a spiral - open ended, rather than closed. There's a little demonstration which I often use with children to show that, unlike other resources, the more love you give away the more you have. We don't have to ration love. We don't need to fear rejection.
Alice Miller, the Swiss psychotherapist, is particularly emphatic about the need for healthy self love or self esteem. She's seen too many examples of children raised in Germanic cultures who were taught they were inherently bad or sinful. Children cruelly punished physically and emotionally "for their own good." What are the chances that these children can grow up able to give love freely to others if they can't first love themselves? There's been a backlash in recent years, claiming that self-love leads to narcissism. We're now told we need to teach children shame. That distresses me. To be sure, we need to teach our children responsibility and consequences. But not shame...
We also need to teach them that love is more than a one-on-one relationship, no matter how fulfilling that may be. In this century, the most prominent UU theologian was the late James Luther Adams. The overriding theme in his personal life and teachings was the Prophethood of all Believers. That is, love acted out through social and economic justice and compassion. Love acted out in an institutional setting. In the thirties, Adams was one of those who, at considerable personal risk, helped to get Jews and others in political danger out of Europe. His students recognized that they were in the presence of a very wise and loving mentor. Even after his retirement, he opened his home every Friday to UU theology students in the Boston area. I only wish I could have had the first hand guidance and inspiration of such a person - one who made love the driving force in his life.
Tonight at sundown Jews the world over will begin a solemn observance of the eight Days of Awe - the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement when, in the spirit of a loving God, past transgressions are atoned for and forgiven, and each person has the opportunity for a fresh start. I often wish that Christian churches and our secular society had retained this holy, loving observance. How much more fulfilling than our annual ritual of champagne and football and black-eyed peas!
Today we are a world starved for love, yet it should be there just for the asking. War is so commonplace that we can even contemplate the unthinkable: the proliferation of weapons that could lead to the ultimate destruction of our planet. Many of our families are torn apart by divorce and domestic violence. Many of our children have turned to drugs and alcohol for comfort. In a land of plenty, people are homeless; in a world of plenty, millions are starving. Leo Buscalia made a fortune just by telling us it's OK to love - OK to reach out and hug each other. Perhaps we are afraid to love; afraid to make ourselves vulnerable. And perhaps we think we do love each other, if we don't actively hate others. Yet psychiatrists tell us that the opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference. Which of us has not been indifferent at some time to someone who needed our love? Unconditional love is not just the province of the gods - or a few esoteric saints. It's very literally our birthright as co-creators of the universe. Without love we will perish, for without love life is not worth the living. May we all be participants in this ministry of love. Amen